Middle East Conflict–Part 1: Under the Ottomans

Our political candidates and commentators bring up Syria quite often. And with reason. The nation is embroiled in conflict–a very, very complicated conflict. What on earth is going on over there? Should we be over there? Well, like most things, it’s rooted in history–in this case, a history often overlooked and/or not understood by westerners. I get into the history first, and this will all help to make the current situation there make much more sense, and maybe offer some clarity to you all that our political “elites” really need to understand.

Yes, we know there is a large Islamic caliphate and terrorist organization known as ISIS. We know there is a massive emigration and refugee movement from war-torn regions. We understand that there is a leader in Syria who these same elites claim must be transitioned out of power. We know that the U.S. has been involved in Middle East affairs for at least a decade and a half (we’ve been involved much longer, but many of my own generation are not aware of this).ht_isis_parade_libya_06_jc_150219_4x3_992

I’m going to take this particular blog, and a few afterward, to bring clarity to the current situation in particularly Syria and more broadly the Middle East. Specifically, I hope to do so by shedding light on important history regarding the formation of the modern Middle East and then details on the intricate labyrinth and nebulous nature of the current and numerous interests all operating specifically in Syria.

Truly, it’s something of a madhouse. For a glimpse, consider that at this moment…

  • The U.S. supports Sunni rebel groups in Syria while supporting Shi’ite forces in Iraq
  • The U.S. supports Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq, as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, who both fight each other and who both fight against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator
  • The U.S. is targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which Russia is also doing, and at the same time opposed to Russia’s support of Assad
  • The U.S. is opposed to the Badr Brigade in Syria, the same group that served as a primary ally in the Iraq War.
  • The Kurds, a current key U.S. ally, have a branch operating against Erdogan, the dictator of Turkey, another U.S. ally in the Middle East.

And I am only brainstorming a little bit of what could be the full enumeration…

I’ll get to all that! But first, how did the modern Middle East develop as it did? Many westerners are offered a vague, watered-down fly-over version of Middle Eastern history that amounts to something like, “There was a Roman Empire and then the Eastern Roman Empire, then there were Muslims, then a few Crusades and the evil Europeans tried to take over Palestine, and then mysteriously we have modern European nations that are ruled by evil dictators (in some countries) who need to be replaced by benevolent American and European foreign policy experts.”

The full picture gets as omitted from historical lessons as Kansas does by national Democratic candidates. And granted, that may in part be due to its complexity.

Now, while the importance of understanding the longer-range history of the Middle East merits its own study, I am only going back to the late Ottoman Empire (in this post) and afterward (in the upcoming posts), as the politics following the end of the Ottoman Empire are the most pertinent in understanding the present in places like Syria and Iraq. Ask many an American what the Ottoman Empire is, and you’ll get the same look you might by asking them to interpret the Star-Spangled Banner in Chinese.


The empire saw steady decline from its height in the 16th and 17th Centuries until the beginning of the 20th Century, by which point, on the eve of World War I, it was known as the “sick man of Europe.” A “last minute” attempt in 1908-1914 to secularize and industrialize Turkey (the heart of the empire) was too little, too late; in the end, a decision to enter the war on the side of the Germans and Austria-Hungarians secured their ultimate end. This landed the empire in the hands of the British and French victors, who, as we’ll see shortly, got to do what I consider to be a favorite activity of theirs: drawing lines on maps and calling them borders. (Forgive my oversimplification here; I will hope to offer some clarity to this point in the next post.)

The whole purpose of my commentary on this background is important to understanding the current Middle Eastern situation. Under the Ottoman Empire, for the greater part of its rule in the latter years, the Sultan and his government in Istanbul allowed for broad decentralized power. What this meant was that, outside of Turkey itself, the lands under Ottoman territory were somewhat lightly regulated by Istanbul, despite mandates that the peoples of the empire uphold Shari’a—Islamic—Law. Regions within the entirety of the empire were required to pay their taxes to Istanbul, but there was little to no extensive military or bureaucratic web able to secure any strict code of law across the entirety of the mostly-desert empire.

Istanbul c.1900 (still called Constantinople by many Europeans at that time)

Istanbul c.1900 (still called Constantinople by many Europeans at that time)

And this is not to say that there was none of this; certainly that is not the case. Nor is this to say that the empire was one of consequential liberty; that is also a false conclusion. Certainly, many regions—especially the more populated—of the Ottoman Empire were ruled by their own local overlords in any variety of Islamic code, and the legal system would have been strictly based in Shari’a for many people (with exceptions, often at the expense of an additional tax; many Christians lived in modern-day Syria and some Jews lived in Palestine).

Nevertheless, much of the empire was set up in a very decentralized fashion based in local regions and ethnicities. Much was feudalistic, with a local landlord overseeing various regions of peasant-workers, other parts were more loosely governed in a sort of farming or herding tenancy-based system (as was much of the case in Palestine). Professor Akram Fouad Khater, in his source document anthology, Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East, explains the situation succinctly: “Before World War I, the Middle East and North Africa were fluid geopolitical spaces in which peoples with various languages, cultures, and ethnicities intermingled in the cities and larger towns and many others lived in rural isolation” (page 109, 2003 edition).

The main point, here, is that the Middle East is no less ethnically complicated than the tribes of North America upon the arrival of Europeans (which a quick google image search can show was covered in a multiplicity of various tribes).

In essence, there were no nations as we think of them today. There were many, many tribes and ethnicities and some large and some nuanced religious differences among them all as a part of a broader, loosely administrated empire. (And for all you PC-obsessed folks out there, I am not saying the Middle East was some epitome of perfect unity in diversity…that’s hogwash. Certainly the Middle East was as laden in inter and intra-religious, ethnic, and political conflict as anywhere else. That’s not the point here. The point is to understand what the Middle East was like prior to the modern states that compose it now so that we can understand how the creation of those states contributes to the current U.S.-embroilment in places like Iraq and Syria.)

Again, Khater puts it very well: “None of their political experiences prepared them to conceive of a political entity that was smaller than an empire and larger than a city or village” (page 110).

Enter France and Great Britain to figure out a new way to administer the Middle East in the wake of the Ottoman defeat in World War I. That’s next.

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